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Nam Narim, whose mother and grandmother are also dancers.  PHOTO SUPPLIED
Nam Narim, whose mother and grandmother are also dancers. PHOTO SUPPLIED

Three decades on, Cambodian creativity lives

A new documentary film explores the revival of the arts in Cambodia following the Khmer Rouge regime. Emily Wight reports.

Dance runs through three generations of Nam Narim’s family. Before the Khmer Rouge came to power, her grandmother, Em Theay, was a dancer at the Royal Palace. When Phnom Penh was evacuated, the 43-year-old woman salvaged a dance score, which she smuggled with her to Battambang province and hid in the wall of the house in which she lived with other members of the labour co-operative. It survived the regime to be handed down to the generations of dancers that would follow her, including her daughter and granddaughter.

All three feature in a new film project which documents the arts revival in Cambodia. Year 33, produced by Americans Kathryn Lejeune and Janna Watkins, follows three different artists as they go about their daily lives in 2012, 33 years after the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime during which, according to the organisation Cambodian Living Arts (CLA), 90 per cent of the country’s artists were executed.

The documentary film "Year 33" follows three artists in their work and everyday lives, including painter and sculptor Soviet Mao, pictured here with his family.  PHOTO SUPPLIED
The documentary film "Year 33" follows three artists in their work and everyday lives, including painter and sculptor Soviet Mao, pictured here with his family. PHOTO SUPPLIED

The documentary, in post-production, is crowdfunding to raise money for screenings both in the US and Cambodia. Through featuring the sculptor and painter Soviet Mao, the traditional ikat fibre artist Chea Vanny, and Nam Narim, it aims to portray a broad spectrum of the reviving arts sector, said Watkins, speaking via Skype from California.

Watkins visited Narim’s family home, and watched her, her mother and Em Theay, now 82 years old, dance together.

“Seeing three generations practice their art together is beautiful in any context, but given Cambodia’s history, it was especially meaningful,” the producer said.

In her Khmer Rouge co-operative, Em Theay was chosen to take care of young babies while their parents were toiling in the fields.

She sang them to sleep, but in her songs, she wished for the country to be at peace. She sang in the Reachasahp dialect spoken only by the royal family and the elite, so that no Khmer Rouge cadres could understand. Some of the cadres tried to execute her, but others protested, saying that they enjoyed her entertainment and she was spared. When the regime fell, Em Theay took the dance score to Phnom Penh and used it to teach people about dance.

“At that time a lot of people would take paper and exchange it for rice to eat, but my grandmother didn’t allow herself to do that,” said Narim, sitting on the steps of the Ministry of Culture’s Department of Performing Arts, where she is a professional dancer and teacher.

“She thought that even if she died, the most important thing was to keep the score because of her love for dance.”

Producers Kathryn Lejeune (left) and Janna Watkins.  PHOTO SUPPLIED
Producers Kathryn Lejeune (left) and Janna Watkins. PHOTO SUPPLIED

Narim places an importance on developing and evolving traditional arts, as well as preserving them. In her performances with the Department of Performing Arts and the dance company Amrita, she practices both classical and contemporary dance, specialising in the role of the yeak, or giant, which appears in a variety of traditional Cambodian dance performances. But for the camera in Year 33, she only performs contemporary.

“Just as the country develops, our art, our dance, must develop too,” she said.

Mao Soviet, whose art mainly consists of sculpture and installation, studied at the Phare Ponleu Selpak arts school in Battambang and has since opened Make Maek and Sammaki galleries in the same city. The documentary shows him with his family in their village, three kilometres outside of Battambang, as well as in his studio and galleries in the city.

Soviet said he was honoured to feature in Year 33 because of his determination to show Battambang’s identity as an arts centre. He said: “It’s a victory that there is a lot of art here in Battambang. After the Khmer Rouge, people forgot about art here, and then the Phare school opened. I hope people understand that I’m developing art in my country and in my city especially.”

Chea Vanny, who practices traditional ikat in Siem Reap.  PHOTO SUPPLIED
Chea Vanny, who practices traditional ikat in Siem Reap. PHOTO SUPPLIED

The documentary also features Arn Chorn-Pond, the founder of CLA, who played a crucial role in reconnecting the country’s artists after the fall of the Khmer Rouge. In an email this week, Pond said that the film is a positive force for the arts in Cambodia.

“Young people and leaders now see clearly that the arts revival, whether traditional arts or modern arts that derive from our own Khmer culture, are crucial mediums.

“Not only can we make a decent living from it, which everyone needs, but it also really helps to heal us, to heal a nation that went through terrible war, suffering, hate, killing and genocide,” he wrote from the US, where he is on a book tour for Never Fall Down, which tells the story of his life as a child soldier during the Khmer Rouge regime.

For Narim, dance is a way to earn a living, yes. But that’s far from being her primary motivation. She said: “I dance the classical dance for my love. I dance contemporary because I love it too. I live for dance.”

Additional reporting by Vandy Muong.

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